Crawford County residents are worried about their water. To keep it clean, they want to prevent more factory farms from starting.
WAUZEKA - Wisconsin’s treasured Driftless Area was once full of family farms.
The road that Aaron Colson grew up on was home to 25 or 30, he said.
“But then that changed,” he said.
Colson returns to his family’s farm often, but the area is changing. He’s seen smaller farms fold under the pressures besetting the farming industry. Those small, diverse family farms have been sold and purchased. And in their place, larger farms have started to pop up, including operations with thousands of animals, known as concentrated animal feeding operations.
CAFOs, also known as factory or industrial farms, can pump out tens of thousands of animals a year.
In Crawford County, where Colson’s family farmland is, the large farms are home to thousands of pigs. Though the county only has one so far — the Roth Feeder Pig I operation, which boasts nearly 7,000 pigs — another factory farm is making its way through the permitting process with the state Department of Natural Resources.
Residents are worried that opening the door to a second, larger pig-rearing operation could lead to a proliferation of CAFOs in the area — and with them, the fouling of water, the oversaturation of soil with nutrients when liquid manure is spread on farm fields, air quality and the general impacts to the quality of life people know and enjoy.
“I mean, Wisconsin has such a deeply rooted culture based on the small and medium-sized family-owned farms,” said Ben Wilson, the southwestern Wisconsin cooperative organizer for Citizen Action Wisconsin. “And these CAFOs are pushing that to the side, destroying the water, destroying the land, running small operations out of business and just not being stewards of the land.”
Those are the concerns residents of the area have carried for years, before the first hog CAFO was permitted and still now, after testing of waterways by local members of the Crawford Stewardship Program have shown harmful levels of contaminants.
Now, they’re hoping to see the state make a decision in favor of the clean water and rolling hills of the Driftless Area.
'The project is expected to be controversial'
The farm proposed, the Roth Feeder Pig II, would be the second such operation of Howard “AV” Roth. The first opened in 2010.
The former president of the National Pork Producers Council wants to open a second operation because he's doing what's best for his family, he said. The new farm would be a separate operation, a few miles apart from the other.
"I want to have something so that if one of my kids wants to take over the farm, they can," he said.
Roth also said that he doesn't think people should blame large farms like his for putting smaller farms out of business. If it were possible to make more small farms viable, that would be ideal. But that's just not the way things have gone. Larger farms are the way to make a living.
But others argue that factory farms are a driving force behind the drop in the number of small family farms — in addition to a drop in the price of milk and poor harvests of crops that are typically used to feed cattle. Nearly 3,000 farms have gone out of business in recent years, because of low pay and high costs of running the operation.
"Just on that two miles of road this farm used to be on, there used to be five dairies there. Now there are no dairies," Roth said. "I wish that smaller farms were all over the landscape, not only would more people know about agriculture, they'd be closer to it."
In permitting documents submitted to the DNR, the farm will produce up to 140,000 weaned piglets a year, which will then be taken to other farms to be raised for meat production. The farm will likely have about 5,000 female pigs that will birth the piglets, as well as about 50 boars. Documents show there will be about 960 young female pigs, known as gilts, under 55 pounds and another 2,000 over 55 pounds.
The weaned piglets are expected to bring in about $5.6 million per year, with an additional $600,000 coming from the sale of sows.
The farm will also employ 14 people full-time, documents say, and will pay out about $900,000 a year in salaries, in addition to more paid out to four part-time workers.
But the application also notes that the residents living around the proposed farm are likely to push back against the operation, too.
“The project is expected to be controversial as opposition against CAFOs has grown,” the application said.
Despite the concerns raised by those against the farm, the DNR conditionally approved a permit for the farm on Sept. 11.
Roth said he doesn't really understand the pushback, and said that he's only trying to do what's best for the community. He also noted that his farm isn't as big as some of the 10,000 cow dairies or other pork-producing farms in places like China.
"You start thinking about those things, putting it in perspective, it's not nearly as big as people think," he said. "If you compare my farm to those across the country, it's small."
Mega-farms' impact on the environment'
In total, there are 318 CAFOs in Wisconsin, according to permitting information from the DNR, with 10 currently undergoing updates, reissuances or modifications. Each CAFO with a certain number of animals must apply for what's known as a Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which are renewed every five years.
The permit requires serval different steps, including a nutrient management plan, an environmental analysis, manure storage calculations, and other plans and specifications for the structures and systems that will be in place on the property.
In Kewaunee County, near Green Bay, dairy factory farms with nearly 1,000 animals have become standard. But with the growth of large operations, groundwater quality has suffered. Some of the dairies — as large as 6,000 cows — produce as much waste as 252,000 people.
That waste then makes its way into lagoons underneath the barns housing the animals, where it is stored until farmers are able to spread it on fields in the spring and fall. Sometimes, that land spreading leads to major environmental issues.
In August 2018, a combination of manure spreading and heavy rains damaged miles of the Sheboygan River in Fond du Lac County, causing at least 40 fish in a 575-foot span of the river to die. In other areas usually rich in oxygen, scores of other dead fish were found.
The DNR alleges that the dairy responsible, Redtail Ridge Dairy, should not have been spreading manure with a rainstorm in the forecast and that the liquid manure inevitably washed into public waters. The case was referred to the state Justice Department for civil prosecution and the dairy was fined $60,000 earlier this year.
'Crawford County is known for its clean water'
That’s one of the biggest concerns for the residents of Crawford County fighting back against the proposed hog CAFO.
Carl Schlecht, who owns property along the Kickapoo River with his wife, Kathleen Tigerman, is afraid of what will happen to the water if a factory farm goes in right over the hill from their home. It’s a place they’ve fallen in love with.
“I think Crawford County is known for its clean water. And why are we being singled out for neglect?” Schlecht said. “I mean, Crawford County is subtle, but it has clean water. I think it’s special, and special might be a flaky word, but that’s what it is. Crawford County deserves the state’s respect.”
Those living in the county look to Iowa for an example of what could happen. Thousands of CAFOs have opened in the state, bringing with them high levels of nutrients in the drinking water.
Some experts now estimate it could take more than 20,000 years to clean up the water, based on plans set by the state, according to a report from the Iowa Capital Dispatch. A portion of Iowa shares the same geologic makeup as southwestern Wisconsin's Driftless Area, known for its tall hills and deep valleys, left behind after glaciers bypassed the area.
Residents are worried about water especially because of the region’s unique geological makeup.
Underneath the soil in the Driftless Area, layers of different types of rocks have been worn away by water slowly trickling through the layers. Carbonic acid within rainwater wears away the stone as it leaches through, creating a complex system of cracks, caves and caverns, which at times have been known to give way to sinkholes in the area.
If contamination like the nutrients from manure spread on the land were to make its way into the rock beneath the short layer of topsoil, it could spell disaster for the residents who rely on private wells for water to drink, cook and bathe in, said Forest Jahnke, a small farmer and the program coordinator for the Crawford County stewardship program.
“If that becomes seriously contaminated, we’re talking about, you know, essentially forever,” he said. “And it’s not like in eastern Wisconsin where they’re drinking out of the bedrock, so they get polluted quickly, but it can flush out potentially in a few years if they implement good practices.”
There's also concern about how far nutrients from land spreading could go — because water doesn't stop at property lines or even state lines, said Janet Widder, an organic farmer and landowner, who lives next to a field on which manure will be spread.
"They're going to be spreading on multiple farms in the surrounding area," she said. "And all of that groundwater is connected. I mean, it doesn't stop at boundary lines of the state or the city or whatever. It's all connected."
Jahnke and the rest of the stewardship group have already been monitoring water quality near the other hog CAFO in the county, also owned by Roth, as well as other fields where land spreading is taking place already.
He said they’ve found evidence of runoff in streams near the fields where liquid manure is spread in the fall and spring, as well as evidence of runoff directly down-water from the existing farm.
There are also concerns over how much water wells from the Roth farm could pull from the aquifer, potentially limiting the amount of water available for other homesteads.
"(Residents) ran pump tests of individual wells, and at the traditional pump rate, we saw a decline of water in the well," said Adam Voskuil, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates. "So there are ties between water quality and quantity."
Those pushing back against the farm are hoping that the DNR will heed calls for an environmental review of the area. But so far, the agency hasn't decided if one will be required, said Tyler Dix, the CAFO permit coordinator.
Dix said he's reviewing public comments on the conditional permit for the farm, which consisted of hundreds of comments with concerns about water quality and other issues common with CAFOs. Once he's done looking through those comments, he'll decide whether more information on the area is needed.
"We received substantial comments, though," he said. "They will take some time to analyze."
Roth said that he doesn't intend to hurt the community around his farm, that he wants to continue to be a good steward of the land.
"You know, all farmers care about the land, the last thing they'd ever want to do is damage it," he said. "I have a 3-year-old kid drinking the water, running through the fields and playing in the hog barn."
'This CAFO is not going to help protect farmers'
Groundwater quality and quantity aren't the only concerns for residents.
Air quality is a big concern. Residents who live in the deep valleys of the Driftless Area worry that the ammonia-tinged smell from the pig barns could drift and rest there, much like the morning fog that often hangs in the air before the sun burns it off.
"Some of the cooler mornings, you can see this blanket of fog just hanging in the Kickapoo Valley and it's gorgeous," Jahnke said. "But these operations are constantly running their fans to push out the gases that would otherwise kill the pigs. And you know, if there is one of those downdrafts that pools in the valley, it could get really unbearable down there."
Currently, the DNR doesn't impose restrictions on factory farms for controlling air emissions, but Jahnke hopes that will soon be taken into consideration because the chemicals in the air leaving barns — like ammonia, methane and hydrogen sulfide — can be harmful to people and animals around the business.
Roth said residents in the area shouldn't really expect to smell much coming from the farm.
"I mean, it's an agriculture community, you will smell it sometimes," he said. "But only once in a while."
Residents also worry about the impact of climate change causing more intense rains in the area.
The Driftless Area has seen a large upswing in the amount of rain it gets during singular storms, often causing deep welts in dirt roads and sending water cascading across crops, causing flood damage.
According to projections from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the area is expected to see an increase in the number of days with 2 or more inches of rain, going from 12 up to about 14 days.
Wilson said the area has seen flash flooding every summer, as heavier rains drop inches of rain at a time, sending cascades of water down the ridges.
"We're in a period in human history where we don't know what the weather is going to look like, we don't know what the climate is going to look like, we can't make predictions as far as major rain events," he said. "That manure could easily get spread over four, five, six, seven times the amount of area it was intended to be on."
But Roth said he's already been required to do the work of calculating what impact flooding would have on his ability to spread manure, and will be required to forgo spreading if there is rain in the forecast.
"It's all about runoff, and we've been handling that for 70 years," Roth said of his family's farm. "That's why there isn't pollution in our wells."
As a part of the paperwork required for the DNR, Roth said he's designed a plan for spreading manure so that more frequent rains won't have as much of an impact. That includes "knifing in" the manure, which ensures the nutrients go into the soil instead of sitting on top.
"We don't want to do damage to the topsoil, the drinking water or the groundwater," he said.
The group of Crawford County residents wants those around them to know that they're not pushing back against the Roth farm to harm farmers or generate controversy. They're pushing for a CAFO moratorium in the county, which was tabled earlier this year, after mentions of lawsuits against members of the voting board by the industry.
"For some reason, we're seen as the antagonistic people for asking questions and asking for more protections, and not the industry that is threatening litigation against the township and the county," Jahnke said. "And yeah, there is a need to help and protect farmers right now. That's for sure. But this CAFO is not going to help protect farmers."
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.